Flat funding: Can Montclair library services, Bellevue branch return?
By ERIN ROLL
The municipal budget Montclair Township officials are considering would leave the public library more than half a million dollars short of the funding its leaders hoped to see. That has them worried that the Bellevue Avenue branch might not be able to reopen, and that services and staffing slashed during the coronavirus pandemic won’t return anytime soon.
“I will say that it is a proposed budget, that we hope the Township Council will be able to readjust and reevaluate accordingly,” library Director Peter Coyl said.
The library saw big cutbacks in the pandemic. In 2020, township officials initially expected to provide the library with about $3.5 million — a little over $2.6 million of which is required through a state formula, and the rest at local officials’ discretion. Once the pandemic hit, they cut that back to a total of $2,983,990 — a level the library hadn’t seen dip as low in about two decades.
The library was closed for nearly seven months. Some in-person services resumed in October at the main branch on South Fullerton Avenue, but the Bellevue branch has yet to reopen. At the main branch, browsing is restricted to the first floor, and computers and other services are still off-limits.
Employees had been furloughed for 27 weeks in 2020 before 21 staffers were let go.
Now, in 2021, a proposed municipal budget holds funding virtually flat with those pandemic-prompted cuts. The library would get an even $3 million. The state-mandated portion would rise slightly, to a little less than $2.7 million.
The additional funding at local officials’ discretion would be about $320,000 — about $35,000 less than ultimately set aside for that purpose in 2020. In all, it’s about half a million dollars less than Coyl told Montclair Local in March was in the library’s temporary budget. At the time, he hoped the township would ultimately set aside more.
The library is still evaluating what the budget will mean for programs, since the budget is a proposed one at this point, Coyl said. But if the proposed budget numbers end up being the final ones, he said, the library may not be able to bring back all of its staff and programs.
“It most likely means that we will not be able to restore our service levels to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.
Coyl said the library remained dedicated to providing services to the community and that the library board of trustees would be meeting at a later date to discuss the budget and possible next steps.
At a Feb. 16 Township Council meeting, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock said he had been receiving a lot of emails regarding a finance committee meeting with the library.
“I know we had asked the library what they needed to do, we didn’t get an answer, we asked again, we got a half-answer,” Hurlock said. “Got a couple of emails after that, and we met the number we were asked to, period. So I really don’t have much more to say on that one.”
Hurlock hasn’t returned a message seeking comment on the budget, or earlier messages in past weeks seeking information on how the budgeting process was progressing.
Cordelia Siporin, president of the Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library, said she found the introduction of the budget on April 6 — during National Library Week, which ran April 4 to 11 —”frankly jaw-dropping.”
“It indicates a disturbing lack of leadership, poor priorities, and an embarrassingly bad sense of optics and timing on the part of those who determine the library's budget on the town council,” she wrote in a statement to Montclair Local. The statement has been published as a guest column as well. “It feels like a slap in the face to the library lovers and library users of Montclair, and I think the citizens, voters, and taxpayers of our town deserve much better than this.”
Siporin said the prolonged closure of the Bellevue Avenue branch runs the risk of causing the branch to be closed permanently.
The same circumstances — a drop in municipal funding — led to the library board of trustees' deciding to close the branch in 2010, Siporin said. It took public outcry for the branch to be reopened in 2011, on a limited schedule, she said.
The budget under consideration would result in a 2.48% increase in the municipal portion of a property owner’s tax bill — the first increase in three years. It will next be discussed at a public hearing May 4.